In preparation for a presentation at Knox United Church in May, the Calgary Gay History Project dove into learning about the struggles the United Church of Canada had in coming to terms with sexual orientation. The United Church through its history has been a leader in a number of progressive issues, where other Christian denominations have remained resistant to social change. Grappling with homosexuality proved a difficult and divisive challenge for the United Church, and there were several twists and turns in their journey.
Knox United Church in Calgary Celebrated 10 Years as an Affirming Congregation in May 2017.
One of the first stirrings of the issue happened in 1965 with Pierre Berton’s publication of The Comfortable Pew: A Critical Look at Christianity and the Religious Establishment on the New Age. He brought up the issue of homosexuality and the church, noting the omission of homosexuality from clergy conversation and sermons. He described the homosexual then, as the modern equivalent of the leper. In Calgary, this idea made news when an Anglican Minister, inspired by the book, called for an embrace of homosexuals in his congregation.
It also generated an article that year in the United Church Observer, the Church’s monthly magazine, which stated that homosexuals should be warmly welcomed by congregations and that some same-sex relationships be given a church blessing. The article generated a significant amount of alarm amongst the clergy.
This issue at the United Church simmered in the background for a decade. In the meantime, Canadian society was changing rapidly. Decriminalization of homosexuality passed in Parliament in 1969. The gay-centred Metropolitan Community Church movement had begun and by 1977 there were congregations in six Canadian cities, including Calgary.
In the late 70s, a United Church task force on human sexuality was commissioned, headed by a Calgarian: Reverend Jim Hillson. Their finding was that “sexual expression is appropriate when it occurs in the context of a loving and committed relationship – for both heterosexuals and homosexuals.” A United Church Observer editorial shot down the finding and promised contention at the General Council – the Church’s highest court. And it was true.
In 1980, the 28th General Council convened in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The report debated at the meeting, In God’s Image… Male and Female was two years in the making. The 103-page document recommended considering the ordination of homosexuals. It also suggested that sex outside the institution of marriage could be acceptable under certain circumstances. One delegate called it: “the most dangerous and misleading document to come before the church in my lifetime.” Church headquarters also received hundreds of letters overwhelmingly opposed to the report, yet the majority of the General Council approved it – but only as a study document.
The issue began to polarize the United Church and preoccupy the next few General Councils. Two internal lobbying groups organized: AFFIRM, a newly formed 200-member organization of homosexual congregants and clergy; and the Renewal Fellowship, a 3,000 member grouping of the Church’s conservative wing, founded in 1965, who vociferously argued against the ordination of homosexuals. An informal survey conducted by the Renewal Fellowship in British Columbia showed that 45% of church administrators would leave their church if a homosexual minister was assigned there.
A passionate debate was heard on the issue at the 30th General Council in 1984 held in Morden, Manitoba. There, the recommendation to allow the ordination of “self-declared” homosexuals was overwhelmingly rejected. Ironically, the Church suspected that 10% of its clergy were already homosexual whether or not they were out about it. Consequently, the Council also resolved to begin an extensive 4-year study on “the nature of sexual orientation and practice.”
Interestingly, the homosexual ordination vote failed to satisfy either lobby group. Reverend Morley Clarke, of the Renewal Fellowship, argued that the Council failed to ban homosexual ordination outright, allowing for non-declared homosexuals to serve. He explained: “There is going to be a lot of anger about this issue. The church at the grassroots has spoken unequivocally on this issue. They have done everything in their power to say ‘no.'” Meanwhile, Reverend Eilert Frerichs, spokesman for AFFIRM and disappointed in the decision, called it a stalemate rather than a setback. He said: “The decision closed the door to any potential witchhunts, and we were terrified that might happen.”
Eilert Frerichs of AFFIRM from Maclean’s Magazine, May 28, 1984. Photo: Brian Willer
In Part 2, next week, we will explore what happened in 1988, when the 4-year study was concluded: arguably the most explosive year for the United Church in its history.